Mira Avrech
June 15, 1981 12:00 PM

When Mexican President José López Portillo meets with Ronald Reagan this week in Washington, he will be accompanied by an elegant gray-haired man, the same striking figure who came along when López Portillo visited Jimmy Carter in 1979. He is Jorge Díaz Serrano, head of Petroleos Mexicanos—Pemex for short—the Mexican state oil monopoly. Díaz Serrano, 60, is the petroleum prodigy who, almost single-handedly, catapulted his country from the ranks of oil also-rans to the forefront of energy-producing superpowers—and did it in less than five years. He is also, as Reagan will learn, a tough negotiator who knows just what his product is worth. In 1977 Díaz Serrano canceled a natural gas sale when the U.S. Department of Energy refused to meet his price. And he is talking just as tough now. “I’ll put it very bluntly,” he says. “We aim to deal with the U.S. according to our program of energy.”

He would seem an unlikely oil czar. A traveling engineer and salesman for much of his life, Díaz Serrano earned a reputation as a hard-drinking playboy. When López Portillo picked him to head Pemex in 1976, a key qualification seemed to be his childhood friendship with the president. But Díaz Serrano had spent his adult life around oil fields, and the Mexican petroleum industry was in deep trouble. The president’s experts were warning him that Mexico would need to import oil within five years. Díaz Serrano disagreed, insisting that the country’s petroleum reserves were at least 11 billion barrels. López Portillo gave his old friend a chance to prove his optimism was justified. “He simply said, ‘See what you can do,’ ” Díaz Serrano recalls.

The initial problem was credibility: Nobody believed his projections about oil reserves, including the bankers whom he approached for loans. Frustrated, Díaz Serrano hired a U.S. oil-appraising firm to make a geological study. The firm’s study validated his figures—and that, he says, was “the key that opened the bank vaults.” Within the next few years Mexican drillers tapped more and bigger oil fields, estimates of the country’s reserves skyrocketed to nearly 68 billion barrels and daily output jumped from 750,000 to 2.7 million barrels. In his four and a half years at Pemex, Díaz Serrano has watched his nation’s petroleum export revenues increase more than 20 times over. Yet he is loath to take credit for Mexico’s oil bonanza. “It’s the work of three generations of geologists,” he says, “and the Mexican oil workers. I go into the fields and talk to the operators. You see, to play this tune properly, the orchestra has to play together.”

Díaz Serrano is now touted as a possible successor to López Portillo—or, more likely, as head of a hypothetical new energy superagency. But he also has his detractors. Environmentalists attacked him for minimizing the importance of a 10-month oil leak that initially spewed 30,000 barrels a day into the Gulf of Mexico in 1979. And Mexican nationalists charge that Pemex serves its own interests rather than the country’s. But Díaz Serrano discounts his critics. “The right-wingers attack me because they believe that I am too leftist,” he says, “and the left-wingers accuse me of leaning to the right.”

His roots in Mexican politics go deep. The uncle who helped raise him was a member of congress and a co-author of the 1917 Mexican constitution. After earning an engineering degree in 1941, Díaz Serrano studied briefly at the University of Maryland and worked for a tool company in Pennsylvania, then returned to Mexico in 1946 to sell engineering equipment for an American firm. Later he founded a successful contracting business and began drilling for Pemex. Some of his equipment was purchased from a Texas businessman named George Bush. Their dealings ended in the early ’60s, but they remain close. “I have high regard for Jorge,” says the Vice-President. “I consider him a friend.”

By the mid-’60s Díaz Serrano was very wealthy. “I had everything,” he says. “Girls, boats, racing cars, private aircraft.” He also had a grave drinking problem. “I reached the stage where I started getting into fights and being obnoxious.” Abruptly, in 1968, he quit. “I have not touched a drink since,” he says. Therapeutically, Díaz Serrano threw himself into higher education, earning a master’s degree in Mexican history. He also began to spend time with his boyhood buddy, “Pepe” López Portillo, who was then an ambitious government official. When his friend rose to power, he brought Díaz Serrano with him.

As if to make up for time lost during his drinking days, the workaholic sets a grueling pace at the formerly sluggish Pemex, breakfasting with his top aides and frequently working during lunch and dinner. On weekends he unwinds with his wife, Elvia, and their five children, aged 17 to 30. Each Sunday he plays tennis with López Portillo, but normally even his relaxation is grueling. Out of bed at 6 every morning, he swims, jogs, practices karate and punches a bag before starting his day. He brings the same toughness to his work and, as the Reagan administration will discover, to the negotiating table. “We all love a good fight,” he says. “It is within us. We all descend from the original hunters—the cavemen. Now we are able to control our instincts and feelings more. Still, I am a very good shot.”

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